Times of India
13 November 2008
By Anubha Sawhney Joshi
Tragic tales abound in this ‘Locality of widows’. In Maqboolpura, every family has lost one or more of its men to drugs or alcohol…
Eighty–year–old Namo lost all her 7 sons and husband to alcohol and substance abuse and simply doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s too busy looking after her two grandchildren, while daughterin–law Manvir Kaur works as a domestic help. “What is the point of talking about them? They’ve gone and died and ruined our lives in the process. Can talking about them feed the hungry mouths in my house?” Namo snaps.
She and Manvir are only two of the many widows in Maqboolpura, a 13–lane area in Amritsar, about 2 kilometres from Amritsar’s main bus stand. Known as the ‘Locality of widows’, it is home to about 200 families. And each house has lost at least one person to liquor and substance abuse. “Most of these families have been affected by the drug menace. Every variety of intoxicant is available to these people,” says Brij Bedi, co–founder of Vidya Mandir, a school for the children of addicts.
Every woman in Maqboolpura has lost a father, brother or husband to addiction. Their stories and circumstances are painfully similar. Kalwant Kaur has been married 17 long years. She lost her husband to addiction and is bringing up four kids all by herself. “Two I’ve put in school but the older ones (14 and 16) go to work. Between the three of us, we make about Rs 1200 a month.” Kalwant cried for a few days after her vegetable–seller husband Manjit Singh died, but then moved on. “What good are tears?” Manjit Singh’s dependence on drugs made the family lose everything. “Beds, utensils, books, shoes, schoolbags… he sold them all in exchange for money to buy drugs, didn’t think about us even once,” she says. But such is the conditioning of the woman’s mind in these parts, that Kalwant is neither bitter nor angry about her husband’s behaviour. “He would do nothing, just be a burden on us. He sometimes even hit me. But I miss his presence…
Kartar Kaur’s life revolves around her grandchildren. Her husband and three sons fell prey to the liquor menace and her daughter–in–law ran away with another man, leaving the 60–year–old with the kids. Kartar Kaur hems dupattas and scarves and eats at the langar at the gurudwara nearby.
Thankfully, in the midst of Maqboolpura’s pain and anguish, there is a ray of hope. Master Ajit Singh has been a resident of the area since childhood and vowed to change things. “I’ve lost too many of my classmates to addiction,” he says. A teacher by profession, Ajit Singh and his wife (also a teacher) decided to teach the locality’s orphans in their house. “Many men have died here, leaving behind orphans and widows. We started really small but a newspaper article brought Brij Bedi to us, after which everything changed.”
An industrialist, Bedi was so moved by the plight of women and children in Maqboolpura and so overwhelmed with the work Ajit Singh was single–handedly doing, he decided to set up a school for the orphans. Vidya Mandir started as a small outfit and now has over 400 students. Funds are scarce. Bedi has tried to raise money through all his contacts but it’s far from sufficient. Teachers are poorly paid and mothers of the students are employed as support staff.
The only thing that gives him the strength to go on is the enthusiasm of the students. There’s 14–year–old Rajwant, who dreams of being in a television serial. “I was the lead in a play we put up. My picture is on the poster,” she says with pride. Siblings Sapna (15) and Anjali (13) live with their brother and mother. The family left their father and ran away, “Because he would beat our mother and all of us,” says Anjali. While Sapna wants to be a cop, “So I can weed out addiction”, Anjali wants to be a doctor, “To provide the healing touch”.